A Brief History of Community Foundations

A community foundation is a simple but ingenious concept...a registered charity that pools large and small gifts and places them in a community endowment fund, the income from which is distributed in support of charitable causes.

In 1914 Frederic H. Goff, a Cleveland banker and lawyer, started the Cleveland Foundation. Mr. Goff developed the idea of a community foundation as a way to ensure that the purposes of perpetual endowments could be varied over time to meet changing needs. The community foundation would be vested with a variance power to use funds for other purposes, as close as possible to a donor's original intent, should that purpose become obsolete. Thus the foundation could avoid costly court proceedings, continue to carry out the donors' wishes and benefit the community in perpetuity.

These foundations would not themselves provide direct charitable services but would, instead, award grants from the charitable trust funds to charities in the community that could best carry out donors' interests and meet community needs.Grant making decisions would be made by a volunteer community-based Board of Governors, who would be appointed because they were representative of the general public and for their knowledge of community needs and the charities that address those needs.

Today, although the role of community foundations has been greatly expanded, the central feature remains attracting and managing permanent endowments. These funds, for a wide variety of philanthropic causes, are entrusted to the care of a group of living trustees, vested with the authority to vary the purposes in order to ensure the legacy remains relevant.

There are now over 650 community foundations in the U.S. holding combined assets in the billions. The largest as of 2009, is the Tulsa Community foundation, with assets totally $4 billion. Canadians, always willing to borrow a good idea, didn't take long to adopt this one. The Winnipeg Foundation was started in 1921 and now has assets of $455 million. The largest Canadian community foundation, in fact the largest foundation of any kind in Canada, is the Vancouver Foundation, started in 1943 and now holding assets of $750 million as of 2010.

Community Foundations are one of the fastest growing and most dynamic networks dedicated to building and strengthening communities in Canada. There are now 191 Canadian community foundations, with combined assets of more than 4.8 billion as of 2016. During 2015, they made over $215 million in grants to support local and national causes across the country.